The Allure of the Traveling Book

travel reading book

This is an essay by Sarah Li Cain.

Exhausted and lonely, I checked into my hostel in Malaysia. I had just gotten off a 10-hour bus ride and was looking forward to some decent rest. Not the one I just had while sitting in a broken chair in a squeaky bus.

I opened the door to my room, threw my backpack on the floor and flopped on the bed. My back lands on something bumpy. No, it’s not the bed I thought. I could have slept on this foreign item I was that tired. Instead, curiosity got the better of me and I flicked on the lights.

There it was, sitting there in the middle of my temporary lodgings was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It was as though someone has left a gift specifically for me. There was no wrapping paper to tear up, no thank you to be dispersed. I opened up the book and read for a few hours before finally drifting off to sleep.

I will be forever grateful to the person who left me this book. I had many more bus rides before I reached my final destination three weeks later. Gregory David Roberts never left my side. Even though I was alone I never felt lonely. When I was done reading the book, I did the same thing the last traveler did. I left it in the middle of the bed for the next person. It was now my turn to give a gift.

These traveling books are simply not books. They are our long lost friends. They are also our excuses to meet new acquaintances, and a chance to ignite our imagination about the people around us. Some travelers may not understand the impact they have when they leave a book for others.

They may be simply unloading their backpacks because they have too many items. Others do think of the next person staying in the room. It’s weird, there’s an unspoken rule around the traveling community about leaving books. Why throw away a perfectly good book when there could be someone else who can find just as much, if not more value out of it than you did?

Not only are these people sharing a book, they are sharing the love of the written word. It doesn’t matter who the next person that receives the book is, as long as they read it and leave it for others. It’s quite fascinating to think how far a book can physically travel just by passing it along from person to person.

If those books could speak I wonder what kinds of stories they might tell, other than the words between its covers.

These traveling books can help break the ice with fellow travelers. If you see them reading a book in a language you understand, chances are they speak that language too.

You can break the ice by asking them how they like book so far, how long they have until they are finished, and if they want to trade.

Not only will you gain a potentially new book, you will possibly gain a new friend. So the next time you travel, make sure you leave a book for a weary traveler.

Be confident in the impact that you and the book will have.

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Sarah Li Cain is an international educator, freelance writer and blogger. She has a lifelong love of the written word and is an avid reader and writer. She is working on reclaiming her fearlessness at Sarah Li Cain.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Moyan Brenn

Summer Books and Places to Read Them

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Even book-worms go on summer vacation…because let’s face it, armchair traveling is amazing, but sometimes you want to actually “be” somewhere. Not to mention, some of the best trips combine armchair traveling with real-life literary destinations. Short on funds or time-off? A good read can make even stay-cations and shorter trips more exciting.

Besides,who says vacations have to be on an isolated beach somewhere, or that summer reading has to be “light?” Like school, Time off is mostly what you make of it, and like any type of education is vastly improved by books. Fortunately, read-and-wander combinations don’t come in short supply–the possibilities are virtually endless. Here are some of my favorites for this summer vacation.

Follow in the footsteps of Tom, Huck and Twain in Missouri

Most people are familiar with Tom Sawyer and his best-buddy Huckleberry Fin–after all, they’re American “classics” not to mention required reading for most students at some point. Not nearly as many readers have the remotest clue about Missouri (unless like yours truly, they’ve lived there), and fewer still would choose it as a “literary” vacation destination, but they’d be silly to discount it.

In Hannibal, Missouri, readers can wander around Tom and Huckleberry’s stomping grounds–Twain based Sawyer’s fictional home town of St. Petersburg on the bustling Midwestern city where he grew up. Learn about the author’s life at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, hop the Mark Twain Riverboat for a turn around the Mississippi,  or explore the Mark Twain Cave—strikingly similar to the one where Tom and Becky got lost. Less than an hour away, visit Twain’s birthplace, a tiny two-room cabin in Florida, Missouri where you can gawk at first editions and a handwritten manuscript of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Outdoorsy readers can set up camp near Hannibal at Mark Twain National Park, and hike, swim, fish and canoe to their heart’s content before curling up in their sleeping bags to spend the evening with Tom and Huck.

Wander in the Shadow of the Wind in Barcelona

Set in post-civil war Barcelona, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind is almost as famous as the city where it takes place. This story within a story about the son of a book-shop-owner, a hidden treasure trove of rare books, a compelling novel and its mysterious author is an ideal read for bibliophiles.

If it’s not  a truth universally acknowledged  that everybody in Barcelona loves Carlos Ruiz Zafón yet, it should be. Myself, I may have been slow to convert, but there it is. Even long-time and somewhat jaded residents (me included) will confess that the city becomes more magical while reading the book. Plaça Catalunya, Barceloneta Beach, the mountain of Montjuíc, these places exist on the page and in real life, so why not the Cemetery of Forgotten books, too?

Like Zafón’s characters, you too can have a café con leche at the famous modernista restaurant, Els Quatre Gats, people watch on La Rambla, get lost on the narrow cobblestone streets of the Gothic Quarter and stroll along the wide avenues of Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood. Readers can download a brief guide and map of locations mentioned in the book at the author’s official website for the U.K.: The Shadow of the Wind-Walk around Barcelona

See the Magic of Greece first-hand with Mary Stewart

Greece has been a literary destination since long before the invention of air travel. The Iliad, the OdysseyMedea, great adventures and even greater tragedies have been set in Greece for centuries. But despite a nearly lifelong fascination with Greek mythology, it was my grandmother’s worn paperback of This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart that first made me curious about modern Greece, specifically Corfu, where the novel is set. It wasn’t long before I snagged her copy of The Moonspinners from a dusty bookcase and started daydreaming about Crete.  My Brother Michael cinched the deal with descriptions of Athens and Delphi.

So when I finally got to Greece, it was only fitting that I dragged My Brother Michael –a cherished inheritance– along. Decades after Mary Stewart wrote about it and years after I first read about it, Athens was strikingly different and much the same. Delphi, Crete and Corfu would have to wait, but Greece didn’t disappoint. The ambience, the food, the people and the landscape were there, just like in Stewart’s books. Without venturing far from Athens, ruins and ancient temples abound, set against a backdrop of mountains, towering trees and ocean views. Beyond the Acropolis in Athens, there’s Poseidon’s temple at Cape Sounion, and Aphaea’s Temple on the Island of Aegina. Of course, visitors with more time to spend in Greece (I was there only briefly for work) can trail behind Stewart’s plucky female protagonists on a tour of all of the sites featured in her books about Greece, including the navel of the earth at Delphi.

Step beyond the bounds of the French Quarter and Get to know the Big Easy

New Orleans may just be my favorite American city.  It’s gritty and full of history, vibrantly alive, and strangely unsettling, or maybe that’s just the books talking. While I first fell in love with Anne Rice’s historical version of the city in Interview with a Vampire, I felt I really got to know it in James Lee Burke’s Dixie City Jam. There’s nothing quite like strolling through the French Quarter and wondering about the city’s dark underbelly, imagining veteran detective Dave Robicheaux swooping in to solve the crime and save the day.

That said, Burke’s books about Robicheaux more likely to keep you on your toes than spur you to explore corners of the Big Easy less-frequented by tourists. Even so, when you find yourself craving beignets with chicory coffee and milk, étoufée, or a shrimp po’boy after reading about what Burke’s cajun detective is eating, you’ll find good places to try these area specialties all around. Afterwards you can pull up a chair somewhere and stop to hear the music—apparently even the best detectives do.

Fall in love with India with Javier Moro

Of all of the places I’ve travelled to, in armchair and airplane, India left the strongest mark. While books I read as a child, like The Secret Garden and A Little Princess only hinted at its allure in a mysterious way, Javier Moro’s Passion India maintains that same mystery and sense of wonder while exploring the many faces of the subcontinent, not all of them appealing.

Although it has its fair share of beautiful beaches, India’s hardly a typical summer-fun-in-the-sun destination. Some sights will touch your soul with their beauty: women in dingy saris selling spices in large baskets by the side of a dirt road; white marble sufi shrines in the rain; figures draped in marigolds and precious gems in hindu temples; the Taj Mahal in all its glory shimmering in the sun.  Still others will break your heart: skinny five-year-olds, their eyes lined with kohl, begging in the street; an emaciated old man carried into a crowded temple for a blessing. Even so, it’s all worth seeing for yourself. Noisy, crowded, colorful, India is overwhelming, just as it was for Anita at the beginning of the 20th century. Everywhere you go, it seems all of your senses are engaged simultaneously. When evening falls, back at their accommodations, a steaming cup of masala chai in hand, readers can escape into this unusual tale, based on the true story of Anita Delgado, the middle-class Spanish woman that became the fifth wife of the Maharaja of Kapurthala.

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

Going on vacation? Don’t pack any books!

This is an essay by Andrew Blackman.

It’s the summer, and everyone from The Guardian to Oprah is recommending books to take on vacation with you.

But I’d like to make a different recommendation. Don’t take any books with you; bring some back instead.

To me, a vacation is a wonderful chance to discover new things, to break out of ruts and to enjoy a real sense of change and renewal. Yet when it comes to reading, many people pack their suitcase full of the same sort of books they’ve been reading the other 50 weeks of the year. It seems a shame.

Think local, read local

My approach is to pack no books at all, and instead to buy all my holiday reading from a local bookshop when I arrive. For me, an important part of travelling is coming to understand the culture of the place I’m visiting, and there’s no better way to do that than by reading books by local writers. I realise that people take holidays for different reasons, of course, and some people simply want to relax on their two weeks off. But nobody said the books have to be serious. Even if you just want a comforting beach read, why not choose one by a local writer?

Books make great souvenirs.

I’ve never been much of a fan of buying plates, ashtrays and other nicknacks with a country’s name emblazoned across them, but I do like to remember the places I’ve visited. Buying books is a solution that works for me – I have a whole collection on my shelves from ten years of travelling, and a mere glance at the spine is enough to bring back happy memories. There’s the beautiful leather-bound copy of the Koran, with Arabic lettering on one page and the English translation opposite, that I bought in a small town in southern Tunisia; there’s the Anne Rice novel I spooked myself with while staying in an eery, crumbling old mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans back in 2002; or how about Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, bought in the heart of the city it describes?

There is no language barrier

That Pamuk book was a translation, bought from an English-language bookshop. It’s amazing to me how many places in the world sell books in English, either in specialised English-language bookstores or simply in sections of regular stores. If you’re lucky enough to be an English speaker, then language really is no barrier. I recently challenged myself by buying a book in French – more on that later – but the ready availability of translations means that, unless you’re travelling to a very out-of-the-way place, you’ll be able to find something in English.

On the other hand, if you’re not travelling abroad this year, you can still buy locally. In fact, many of the books on my souvenir shelf are from the years when I lived in New York and most of my trips were exploring within the United States. I loved buying books by local writers wherever I went, like the Anne Rice book in New Orleans, which was the type of thing I’d never normally read. I also discovered some wonderful independent bookstores up and down the country, my favourite being the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, a place I could easily have spent my whole vacation in, if the call of the Rockies hadn’t been so strong.

What I brought back this year

I just got back from a little tour of four Caribbean islands: St Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. It was a busy trip, and I was staying in people’s homes so there was not much time for reading: after a day of sightseeing, I spent the evening chatting with my hosts. So I only bought one book in each country, and still didn’t get through all of them. Here’s my haul, anyway.

In St Lucia, the most famous writer is Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, but I’m already familiar with his work so decided to try out something different. I met the poet Kendel Hippolyte at a literary festival and liked his work, and bizarrely I ran into him again randomly on a street in St Lucia during my visit, so took that as a sign, and bought his poetry collection Birthright.

I went from poetry to theory in Martinique, picking up a copy of Caribbean Discourse, a collection of essays by the celebrated poet and critic Edouard Glissant.

Guadeloupe was where I took the plunge and bought a book in French: Maryse Condé’s Le coeur à rire et à pleurer – Souvenirs de mon enfance. I used to read French quite well, but it’s been a very long time, and this is a real challenge for me. I’m going slowly, but so much of the language is coming back to me. I’m on page 4 so far.

Dominica is best known in the literary world for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, but I already had a copy so, again, decided to look further afield. I came across Ma Williams and her Circle of Friends by Giftus John, a nostalgic story about old village life.

I’m enjoying my purchases, and they’ll make great reminders of a really special trip. Better than a souvenir plate any day!

Where are you going on vacation this summer? What do you plan to read?

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Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He was born in London, worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal in New York, and is currently living in Barbados while he works out his next move.

[Audio] An Introduction (or Refresher) to Greek Mythology

This is an essay and audio recording by Brandon Monk.

When Alicia and I were in Greece we went into a little shop and were browsing for a gift for my mom. The attendant asked, in English, what we were doing while in Greece and I told her about our trip to Delphi and the Temple of Poseidon. She gave us a little chuckle. I think she was laughing at the fact that we were going to visit several sets of ruins during our trip. She’d never been to either spot despite living in Greece her entire life. If there’s a message there it’s either that I am far too interested in the archaeological sites or that you shouldn’t overlook the gems in your own backyard.

From the myths of the past we get a new appreciation for the present. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to spend some time thinking about the nature of the myths of ancient cultures. If we’re lucky, and a trace of us remains, someday we may be thought of as an “ancient culture.” It’s humbling to know that you might not have all the answers. It’s educational to understand that our society is still struggling with many of the same problems that faced the citizens of Greece in 500 B.C.

Before Alicia and I left for our vacation I spent some time going over ancient Greek mythology because I knew we’d be visiting some archaeological sites in Greece. I re-read Mythology by Edith Hamilton and took out my old text-book from a mythology class I’d taken, Classical Mythology, Mark P.O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon. To really get the stuff down before we left I decided to record a series of podcasts related to what I’d read. I want to put those up here over time and today I’m going to offer the first one to you. I think I have about six of these done and each one is at or less than 15 minutes long so you can listen to them pretty quickly.

In this podcast episode you’ll hear a 15 minute introduction to mythology. This will help set the stage for some later discussions. You can download the audio or access the audio at the bottom of this post.

The general content outline is as follows:

  • What is a myth?
  • What is a classical myth?
  • What is so special about Greek myths?
  • Myths aren’t religion.
  • 7 ways to read myths.


Is There Anything Left to Say, Hamlet?

“Hamlet” is a masterpiece. Many of us have read it or listened to it on audiobook. I’d never seen it acted, though, until my recent trip to London.  Did I come up with anything that hasn’t already been said? I doubt it, at least not about the play itself. I do, however, have a story to tell about my experience watching the play. Isn’t that what reading and writing is all about? Isn’t that what Shakespeare was after when he wrote the play? To have it act on each individual in a special way.

The Globe is an open air theatre. Historically, people would sit under one of the three covered levels of the theatre, but if they couldn’t afford to pay the price for a penny they could stand in the “pit” or “yard” below the stage and watch the play from there. People packed in and stood throughout the entire play. These people were called “groundlings” and there were even jokes made about them during the plays.

During the play, Hamlet actually refers to the groundlings in Act 3 Scene 2:

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise.

During the early 17th century people would pay the penny just to get a chance to steal a purse from another “groundling” or patron. In 1599, Thomas Platter mentioned the cost of admission at contemporary London theatres in his diary:

There are separate galleries and there one stands more comfortably and moreover can sit, but one pays more for it. Thus anyone who remains on the level standing pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door. And in the pauses of the comedy food and drink are carried round amongst the people and one can thus refresh himself at his own cost.

We went back in time, temporarily, and subjected ourselves to this “groundling” experience. It would be too noble of me to say that we did it for purely academic purposes, instead, we simply booked our tickets too late to get a seat.

It rains in London. It rained in London for our entire stay. So, my experience of seeing Hamlet is as a “groundling” on a rainy day.

It’s one thing to experience Shakespeare on the page. It’s quite another to experience Shakespeare from the ground in the rain and then be the butt of Shakespeare’s joke at the same time.

Seeing Shakespeare in this way makes me think that I don’t need to match the academics line by line in analyzing the deeper psychological implications of Hamlet’s case. I need not parse the play line by line looking for some new writerly tool or tactic. The vocabulary seems to be less important when you see the play acted out with adequate emotion. Long soliloquies become impressive shows of emotion that I can empathize with, especially being shoulder to shoulder with my fellow-man.

So, my experience with Shakespeare makes me think this: we need to spend more time reading Shakespeare out loud, preferably with a friend. Alternatively, we need to see Shakespeare acted by professional actors. Further, if you can get into out in the open air and see Shakespeare you’re probably going to see barriers to understanding lifted. If you get lucky enough to be rained on while watching Shakespeare, then real quickly you’re going to see that the Shakespeare experience was not really created to be fully had sitting in a class room parsing word by word to discover the meaning. The classroom is just the starting point, albeit a damn important one.

Photo: Alicia Murphy

When It Comes to Reading and Traveling You Can’t Plan the Best Stuff

This trip was a Christmas present. Alicia asked for it in some not so subtle ways and I obliged because in years past I’d manage to buy things she never used. Who doesn’t want a karaoke machine or an electronic keyboard, right?

The trip was planned for six months. We did our research, or rather, Alicia did hers and I watched. We wanted to see the obvious: Stonehenge, The Louvre, The Vatican, archaeological sites in Greece, The Colosseum, and whatever else we could squeeze in.

During a trip to Delphi we encountered something that would touch us far more than these national treasures. In a little mountain town we saw a traditional Greek funeral procession which was proceeding by foot down the road. The mourners followed about eight men in uniform. We pulled to the side of the road and killed the engine and could do nothing but silently observe with empathy. We would learn the man died at 48 leaving behind a wife and children. His business had been in trouble. His father had also died at 48.

While in Rome at the Colosseum we were initially frustrated to learn that of all days, the day we picked to visit, the site would be closed to visitors because of a labor strike. We took a short tour around the exterior and heard some history. The tour guide explained that the strike was a result of the incredibly high tax rate, effectively 55%, that the Italian workers paid. We walked down the road after the tour and watched the marching workers from a restaurant as we ate. The march was peaceful but intense.

These are things we could not have planned in advance. To me, though, they were life changing experiences. They were the real activities and emotions of the real citizens of the countries we visited. They’ll stick with me forever.

In this way reading is like travelling. The things that impact you along the way might not be the things you set out to see. Everyone knows the story of Holden Caufield in a nutshell, but do you get a chance to break down and feel what it’s like to be him by reading the notes or Wikipedia entry?

Engage in active reading and you’ll find the unexpected. Maybe you’ll even see something no one else has seen before because you will have read through the lens of your own unique experience. Maybe what you see will change your life.

Photo: Some rights reserved by grahamc99

Read to Avoid Despair or to Confront It

I wrote this post from a beach front hotel room in Greece. No, it wasn’t raining. Before you start to yell, let me explain. I don’t want to tell the story of the entire trip just yet, but I have to offer a few words of explanation so you don’t think I am squandering my vacation on the internet.

Alicia tripped coming out of the hotel room on the way to the archaeological site of Olympia. We spent a morning in Patras’ emergency room, and then we spent a couple of days with her leg elevated and in a cast. It turns out she just had a nasty sprain and partial ligament tear, no broken bones.

Our Patras predicament got me thinking about the mindset of despair. Perhaps our situation is not despair, but Alicia’s fall defeated our hope we would make it to Mt. Olympia and then the Achai Clauss winery. Put into perspective, we weren’t bad off. Patras’ ER facilities were incredibly efficient. Our cab drivers were accommodating in getting us back and forth from the hotel. We have a place to stay and a view of the mountains from our window.

People worry themselves into despair over much less these days, though. Instead of submitting to despair the goal is to find a way to better your situation. For example, I can find a book to read to make productive use of my time. I can also find the time to write a short post to share with people I care about.

Now, I may choose to be desperate, to read a desperate book or a story of a desperate person, but that is a choice. Right now, though, I’d much rather finish reading Swamplandia! and polish off the last of the 2012 Pulitzer contenders that I haven’t read. I am on vacation after all.

If you’re going to be desperate, be deliberately desperate. Act as if your life depends on your external circumstances and be prepared to explain why you acted that way. If you don’t feel like submitting to despair, find an entertaining book to read or a compelling story to write and refuse to submit.

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Again, this is just a short note. More on the trip and my experience reading and travelling through London, Paris, Rome, Athens, and Amsterdam coming as soon as I can get it typed up. Thank you to all the great guest posts that went up in my absence. I did manage to follow them while travelling and, as usual, was very happy to see them received well by you, intelligent readers.

 

Best Places to Get Inspired to Write a Book in Paris

This is part three of a three-part essay featuring Parisian book activities by Christina Hamlett.

From my own experience, one of the most common questions that writers get asked by non-writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Yet strangely they never seem to be satisfied with the answer, “From real life.”

When my husband and I travel, I’m never without a notebook to jot down potential titles for articles, snippets of conversations or quirky character sketches that will eventually work their way into my books. A real writer, I think, can’t help but walk past a house and wonder who lives there, speculate about the relationships of people having lunch, or even imagine what a city must have looked like 20, 50 or 100 years ago.

Our recent trip to Paris was certainly no exception to this creative process, and I came away with a fun series of “brainstormers” to get your own imaginative juices flowing:

Cemeteries

Stroll amongst the headstones and crypts, taking note of the art, masonry and inscriptions. (http://www.pariscemeteries.com provides a nice overview before you go.) Imagine the life and times of those who are buried and the families that spared no expense to memorialize them. Spooky note: in our self-guided tour of Montparnasse, we happened to come upon a sepulcher door that had been left open; could this mean that its ghostly inhabitant stepped out for a moment but will be returning shortly?

Sidewalk Cafes

Watch the world go by over a glass of wine and a slice of quiche. The tables and chairs are assembled in close proximity, making it easy to eavesdrop on conversations. So you don’t speak French? No problem – make up your own dialogue to fit the ages, clothing and mannerisms of the people you’re observing. (It’s also fun to do this watching foreign TV shows without subtitles.)

Time-Travel

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the screenwriter character of Gil (Owen Wilson) longs for a more romantic era…and finds it when a mysterious car whisks him off every evening to the 1920’s company of Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. In a reverse spin, choose your favorite artist, composer or writer that found inspiration in The City of Light, take yourself to the nearest park for some meditation, and imagine how s/he would react to the 21st century.

Window-Shopping

Paris is expensive to be sure but not if you’re just shopping for new plots. Study florist shops and decide what kind of flowers your fictional characters would buy for a first-date, an apology, a proposal or a break-up. Look at furniture store windows and imagine what kind of people will purchase the items displayed. Observe the salespeople and make up comedic/dramatic/supernatural stories about the lives they lead outside of work. Go to an open-air market (a Paris tradition since the 16th century); between the sellers and the buyers, you’ll get lots of ideas for new characters.

Life Imitating Art

Once upon a time I had an English teacher who would show us pictures of famous pieces of art and tell us to compose short stories based on our impressions. (Years later, it’s still an effective tool for unclogging those pesky mental cul de sacs.) There are over 60 museums and monuments in Paris – see where I’m going with this? – and if you purchase a 2, 4 or 6 day pass in advance (http://en.parismuseumpass.com), you can avoid the inevitably long queues and save yourself a lot of Euros. Once inside, you’ll find no shortage of plot material amongst the paintings, sculptures and artifacts.

Every Window Has a Personality Behind It

Contrary to what you always see in the movies, not every hotel room has an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower. Most of them, however, do have delightful views of Paris rooftops, dormer windows and balconies. I don’t know about you but I always love speculating about who lives in all those flats, how long they’ve been there and what kind of decorating they’ve done. At some point, you may even see one of the tenants open a window to water plants, hang laundry or step out on the fire escape for a smoke…and so your story begins!

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Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author whose credits to date include 28 books, 145 stage plays, 5 optioned feature films and squillions of articles and interviews. She is also a professional ghostwriter and script consultant for stage and screen. Visit her website at www.authorhamlett.com.

Best Places to Read a Book in Paris

This is part two of a three-part essay featuring Parisian book activities by Christina Hamlett.

One of the things I noticed on our recent vacation in the City of Light is that the French are totally unapologetic about their reading habits. An example of this was the evening we officially celebrated my birthday at Le Paris, The Hotel Lutetia’s timelessly elegant Michelin Star restaurant. Shortly after we arrived, a solo gentleman was seated at a nearby table and proceeded to pull out a novel roughly the thickness of War and Peace. Over the next couple of hours – for meals such as this are never rushed in Paris – he enjoyed his dinner and engaged in small talk with the servers but never once set the book aside.

Interestingly, this became a fairly common occurrence in restaurants and bars – a testament to the love of literature and the unabashed enjoyment of a good story regardless of the setting in which the reader finds himself. If books are yourpleasure, you’ll find yourself in stellar company.


CAFÉ SOCIETY

In the late 19th century, there were 45,000 cafes sprinkled throughout Paris. Although that statistic has shrunk by 90 percent and has been impacted by both the rise in fast-food venues and a ban on smoking, they are still popular hangouts for locals and tourists that want to grab a snack, catch up on news or bury their noses in books. Unlike the American tradition of turning tables as quickly as possible, French servers are in absolutely no hurry for you to be on your way. We noticed, for instance, two ladies reading paperbacks over their morning coffee at 9:30; when we passed back the same way at 1 p.m., they were still there.

PARKS AND RECREATION

When beautiful weather beckons, everyone heads outdoors to enjoy the sunshine, inhale the fragrance of flowers and hit the “pause” button on a park bench. Paris has a number of idyllic settings for that very purpose, the most famous of which include:

  • Le Jardin du Luxembourg – This botanical haven traces its origins to the mid-17th century and the inspiration of the Medici family. Settle in beside a cool fountain, on an iron chair, spread a blanket on the grass or sit on the steps of the palace and lose yourself within the pages of imagination.
  • The Tuileries – Another brainchild of the Medicis, this is the oldest and most artfully symmetrical garden in the city. Replete with statues and plenty of benches, this blissful reading spot is within easy walking distance of The Louvre.
  •  Bois de Vincennes – It’s hard to imagine a public commons that boasts more acreage and greenery than Central Park but Vincennes Wood is it. The botanical park, gazebos and lakes offer plenty of places to tuck into your latest read without any interruption.

IN TRANSIT

Several of my Parisian associates who have to commute to work on a daily basis swear by the Metro as a cozy bubble for guilt-free reading. Not only do they maintain that it’s something they can do just as easily standing up as sitting down but that it takes much less time to stuff a book in your pocket when you reach your stop than it is to power-down a laptop. A book, they add, is also a great deterrent if you’re not inclined to socialize with strangers on public transportation. Thinking of taking a cruise down the Seine? There’s plenty of breathtaking scenery along the 482-mile route but there’s also ample opportunity to put your feet up, enjoy the river breezes and amuse yourself with some light reading.

BATHTUB ROMANCE

Yes, yes, you probably read paperbacks in the bathtub all the time at home but there’s something decidedly different about doing it in your Paris hotel room. It all starts with buying the right soap by Roger & Gallet. In the 1870’s, these were the same purveyors who invented that cute round bath soap wrapped in pleated paper. This brand and squillions of others can be purchased at Paris’ premier department store, Le Bon Marche. You’ll also want a nearby plate of chocolate. Chocolate shops abound in Paris but my personal fave is La Maison du Chocolate located next door to The Lutetia. Lastly, indulge in a split of champagne from room service, turn on the tap and hang a “Do Not Disturb. I’m Reading” sign on the bathroom door. You deserve it.

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Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author whose credits to date include 28 books, 145 stage plays, 5 optioned feature films and squillions of articles and interviews. She is also a professional ghostwriter and script consultant for stage and screen. Visit her website at www.authorhamlett.com.

Best Places to Browse for Books in Paris

This is part one of a three-part essay featuring Parisian book activities by Christina Hamlett.

There’s much to be said about walking in the Paris rain with the one you love. When those April showers are suddenly accompanied by high winds and chilly temperatures, what better place to seek shelter from an afternoon storm than behind the doors of a beckoning bookstore? The City of Light certainly has no shortage of them, each with their own unique “stories” to tell.


Here’s a sampler to get you started:

Shakespeare & Company

37 Rue de la Bûcherie
75005 Paris

This iconic Parisian bookstore in the Left Bank’s Latin Quarter is the stuff of legends. As you troll the shelves and rub elbows with fellow literature lovers, you can almost feel the presence of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fizgerald, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein hovering over your shoulder. Workshops, weekly readings and performances are an added bonus.

Abbey Bookshop – La Librairie Canadienne
29 Rue de la Parcheminerie

75005 Paris

This true browser’s delight is housed in an 18th century townhouse that’s packed to the gills with over 24,000 titles. Lest you feel overwhelmed by this glorious sight, the shop’s enthusiastic management will help you hunt down whatever you’re seeking, including ordering books that are out of print.

Berkeley Books of Paris
8 Casimir-Delavigne

75006 Paris

Launched by a trio of Californians whose love of books is matched only by their collective passion for Paris, this venue carries a broad spectrum of used editions and is also a good place to sell books from your own collection. Online purchases can be made as well if your carry-aboard simply can’t accommodate one more title to take home.

Galignani
224 Rue de Rivoli

75001 Paris

When the printing press was invented, the 16th century Galignani family was among the first to put it to stellar use as a way to distribute reading materials to a broader audience. Almost three centuries later, these Venetian entrepreneurs relocated to Paris (via London) and not only expanded the family publishing business to a bookstore but also added a reading room where visitors could chat about titles of the day. The shop (still owned by Galignani descendents) excels in literature, fine art, history and popular culture books.

Gibert Jeune
10 Place St-Michel

75006 Paris

Gibert Jeune is a family enterprise that was founded in the 1880’s and today sells over three million books annually, a third of which are second-hand.

Tea and Tattered Pages
24 Rue Mayet

75006 Paris

Time truly stands still at this second-hand bookstore and charming English tearoom that has the cozy feel of a private home. Should you doze off past closing, one can’t help but wonder if the owners wouldn’t simply tuck you in with a crocheted afghan and come back to awaken you in the morning.

FNAC – Montparnasse
136 Rue de Rennes

75006 Paris

FNAC – Champs-Elysées/Galerie du Claridge
74 Avenue des Champs-Elysées

75008 Paris

If you’re accustomed to book browsing at American mega-stores that also carry music, greeting cards, games, movies and multi-media electronic devices, you’ll feel right at home at these two FNAC addresses. Their travel guide sections are outstanding and the stores frequently host guest speakers and book-signings.

Last – but definitely not least – was our fortuitous discovery of the sizable book department at The Louvre as well as The Tuileries Gardens bookstore (which specializes in all things flora) located near the Place de la Concorde.

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Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author whose credits to date include 28 books, 145 stage plays, 5 optioned feature films and squillions of articles and interviews. She is also a professional ghostwriter and script consultant for stage and screen. Visit her website at www.authorhamlett.com.